Abuse, Blindspots and the Tango

“We’re out to make every life extraordinary. And if by chance it ever seems laborious or a sacrifice, then you are looking at the offramps instead of the highway. You are missing the signpost up ahead, The one that reads, “next stop, infinity.”” David Miscavige, leader of Scientology in a public address (quote from Going Clear)

“Miscavige slapped me across the face, Knocked me on the ground, kicked me a couple times. Flailing fists, kneeing him in the stomach, Getting him on the floor. And you think, you want to get up and retaliate… … And you’re thinking, “I must have really screwed up.”” Jason Beghe (quote from Going Clear)

“But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root… Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barrenAlma 32:38-39

It’s with a heavy heart that I approach a subject that’s been on my mind for some time now. It’s so difficult to bring this subject up because it approaches the very heart of religion, the Gospel and even God. It approaches a discussion about the very fabric of the social structures of religion. More than that, it has personal significance for me; this is not just some detached conversation, but something that I’ve experienced in my own life. By nature, this is a highly polarised area. Conflicting and competing worldviews exist, and I understand fully that the viewpoint I am about to advocate will not sit well with many of my believing friends.

I dislike contention. Though don’t believe that there is a devil, I still like the scripture that indicates the undesirability of contention:

“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” 3 Nephi 11:29

But I ask to be heard out anyway. I have something to say and I think it is of utmost importance. As Mormons, and as missionaries we routinely interrupt people’s everyday lives to make statements that we perceive are of similar importance. We routinely turn around tell others that their perceptions of reality are incorrect, incomplete or inadequate without the “fullness of the Gospel”. So what I’m doing is technically nothing out of the ordinary, but it is just the other way around.

Abuse, and abusive relationships

There are different types of abuse, but I want to talk today about emotional, spiritual and psychological abuse.

Something that I feel would be a good way to characterise an abusive relationship is to look at the issues, problems, problem resolution and blaming dynamics of the relationship. Allow me to illustrate:

imagine that there is a husband and wife relationship. The husband is abusive towards the wife. Like any marriage, theirs has problems. However, as an abuser, the husband has certain patterns and behavioural characteristics in connection with their issues:

  1. The husband always blames the wife for whatever problem there is; and whenever the wife is unhappy about something the husband says it is the wife’s fault.
  2. The husband never accepts responsibility for himself, or admits to any of his own behaviours being a potential source of fault in their relationship.

Imagine further the following behaviour in the wife:

  1. The wife accepts the blame everytime the husband places it on her.
  2. The wife never criticises or thinks ill of the husband.

We have just characterised a very typical abusive situation; an “imbalanced blame” type of scenario. All of the blame is shifted to one member of the relationship, it is always their fault, without exception. I recommend this TED talk for further consideration as it illustrates this abusive scenario very well.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, who in this talk describes acts of physical violence committed against her in her husband, asks a simple question that everyone asks about abuse:

“Back to my question: why did I stay? The answer is easy…

… I didn’t know he was abusing me. Even though he held those loaded guns to my head, pushed me down stairs, threatened to kill our dog, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, poured coffee grinds on my head as I dressed for a job interview. I never once thought of myself as a battered wife.”

It is that profoundly simple. Why do people not exit abusive relationships? Because they don’t realise they are being abused.

The Gospel, God, and the Church

Now I want to turn to our relationship with the Gospel, God, and the Church, and this is where the conflicting worldviews come into play:

Classical Mormon Worldview

  • The Gospel is perfect, but the people who live it aren’t.
  • The Church is perfect, but the people who are in it aren’t.
  • God is perfect, but His children who interact with him aren’t.

For the sake of good argument, I will grant one important thing. IF:

  1. God exists
  2. The LDS Gospel is His “message”
  3. The LDS Church is His Church

Then all of this makes sense. It works correctly.

However, now that I have spent an extended amount of time reviewing the fundamental truth claims of the church, and do not believe them to be true, this now puts me in a place where I can re-evaluate the behaviours of the church organisation.

The new worldview

I feel obliged to point out that this pattern of belief has a striking resemblance to the pattern of abuse. One party is perfect, never at fault, (God, the Church and the Gospel) and the other is always at fault whenever there is any problem. If there is ever any issue with the me and the church, then it is an issue with me, not the church!

Can you see the potential abuse that could stem from this? And if a women who is physically beaten doesn’t realise that she’s being abused, what’s the chance that as LDS church members that we’ve been abused? Spiritually abused? Psychologically abused?

I strongly believe now that religion both creates and attempts to solve an emotional deficit problem. In particular, the atonement doctrine is very good at this. There is a dual, tandem effect:

  1. You are imperfect and unworthy. You are nothing without God. (Create a problem)
  2. But through the atonement of Christ, you can be made whole again. (Attempt to solve a problem)

This is not unlike marketing 🙂 (“is your sofa full of dust mites? Our new bla bla bla”)

This is but one example. I now see many things that church leaders say or do that could be considered emotionally abusive. For instance, one recent comment got lots of fun attention online:

“You beautiful girls — don’t wander around looking like men. Put on a little lipstick now and then and look a little charming — it’s that simple. I don’t know why we make this whole process so hard.” (Ballard)

The outside world cringes. I wonder how many girls felt hurt by that comment, and then subsequently went and “repented” of thinking ill of ol’ Ballard. What a shame that these brethren have a full licence to say whatever they want to people and they’ll just soak it all in, never questioning.

The ultimate intellectual blind-spot

I have come to view religion and religious belief as the ultimate intellectual blindspot. This could be viewed as quite antagonistic language, so I apologise for that. I mean no offence in that statement, merely observation, and self-observation. Perhaps I should reword it as “Religion was my ultimate intellectual blindspot” — I have stared into the abyss as I’ve seriously contemplated whether my view of reality has been wrong for my entire life. I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I have also come to the conclusion that many people who are otherwise very very intelligent people, for whatever reason, seem to be unable to bring themselves to a point to seriously question their own religion. Ignore Mormonism and yourself for a second, because it is very hard and very emotional; and look at Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims or Scientologists. Ever wondered why they don’t question their own religion? Why can’t they bring themselves to a point of questioning what they’ve been brought up to believe? Do they all think they’ve won the worldview lottery?

I have spent many hundreds of hours in research and study about Mormonism and other religions. The more I look at them, the more I feel that they are all the same. The concepts and memes we find circulating in Mormonism are present, in some form or another, in so many other religions around the world, with striking similarity.

One particular group of memes that I’ve found in the same or similar format all around other religions is this exact same one; one might call it them “system protection memes”, many of them in the form of “thought-terminating cliches”.

A “thought-terminating cliche” refers to a statement like “The Church is perfect, but the people who are in it aren’t.” — it’s a discussion- and thought-terminating statement. It stops us from thinking from that point onwards and diverts our attention elsewhere.

Having an entity in one’s life that one trusts absolutely IS one of the main precursors to abuse. Having our beliefs as the “sacred”, the “unquestionable” and the “unerring” is the foundation upon which potential abuses can happen.

There is a connection between the intellectual blind-spot and the potential for abuse. Fascinatingly, yielding oneself and one’s own will to a perceived authority figure is capable of creating many of the sensations we often describe as spiritual experiences. (More on that in a later article).

What do these words mean?

Now with the foundation that abuse involves one perfect, unerring party and one who always accepts the blame, let me quote a few statements from formal church sources that are all relevant in this area of “blindspot abuse”:

  • “… I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility…” Mosiah 4:11
    • God is great, we are nothing
    • We are unworthy creatures (when’s the last time you told that to your home teaching family? “Hi John, don’t forget you’re an unworthy creature!”)
    • Got it!
  • “But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root… Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barrenAlma 32:38-39
    • The seed is perfect
    • We are not
    • If the seed does not sprout into joyful faith it’s because the ground is barren (there’s a problem with me)
    • Got it!
  • Similarly, the parable of the sower implies that the only possible problem with “ground / seed” interaction is the ground itself. (us). The seed (the word) is perfect.
  • “ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words” 1 Nephi 17:45
    • God is always speaking and always open to chat with us.
    • But if we don’t feel anything, it’s because WE are beyond feeling.
    • There is obviously nothing wrong with God, because He’s perfect.
  • “So often we are haunted not only with the question whether we have gone far enough in our own religious experience but also whether we can rely on some things we have previously trusted. Acids eat away at us. Sometimes it is the taunting of other voices; but sometimes it is nothing more profound than our own sins and weaknesses, and the betrayals of the best in ourselves. Doubt naturally follows.” Truman Madsen (Joseph Smith the Prophet)
    • Our own sins and weaknesses are the source of our doubts, because we obstruct the presence of the Holy Ghost.
    • When we doubt, we are showing our own betrayals and sins.

There are certainly more, and I’ve observed this type of meme in many religions. (The Scientology quote at the top of the page is a good one).

It takes two to tango

Real life and real relationships involve two imperfect beings or organisations interacting with each other to achieve something. Problems occur in reality, no relationships are without issues. In this case we are considering interactions between man-made and man-organised “systems” (whether they be interactions between people and systems of thought (the “Gospel”), or people with other people (the “Church”)

1: Surely, some negative experiences with the LDS church lie with “us”.

To be fair, this must mean that some negativity in terms of interaction with the church IS indeed because of the people (“us”). Perhaps we have had unrealistic expectations, or we have been mean spirited, or we have taken offence to things that we ought not to have. This is certainly the case and I think anyone who is honest should admit that they themselves can be a source of negativity and issues.

However, it would be unfair to assume that in all interactions between humans and the Church, that only one party is always to blame for any potential issues that might come up…

2: Surely, some negative experiences with the LDS church lie with the LDS church itself.

… Yet that is how the Church and Gospel are structured! For instance, when is the last time you ever heard a church leader say any of the following or similar:

  • “On behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I am sorry, we messed up. We’re working on it and we will make this right” (Gosh, that would be refreshing to hear!)
  • “You know, what Joseph did by marrying other people’s wives, that’s not acceptable, and we’re not OK with that. He may have been a prophet, but he made this serious mistake, and we openly disavow this behaviour.”
  • “We acknowledge that at times we have received and acted upon what turned out to be false revelation.” (Like the revelation to sell the Canadian copyright of the BoM, angels telling Joseph to take additional wives, etc.)
  • “I’m sorry, we screwed up.”
  • “We’re sorry that our previous leaders taught racist things and were judgemental towards black people.”
  • “We’re sorry that we continue to treat and have treated homosexuals in very demeaning and unfair ways.”

Or, in simple language, when was the last time that the Church repented? For an organisation that teaches its members to repent (even daily!) the organisation itself seems very intent on covering up any of its sins and not dealing with them overtly. It is thus, by nature, a hypocritical organisation. It clumsily throws different people under the bus in order to preserve the core; authority, prophets and apostles, and hires a world-class PR department.

I just wish it would be real ! Come clean, acknowledge mistakes and weaknesses in the organisation, doctrines and practices, and move on from there. Let’s work it out together. Let’s stop telling our people that they are the source of any and all problems!

And I also wish that we could come to a point where we recognise that having a perfect entity in anyone’s life is a recipe for abuse.

Personal closing note: my chat with the stake president

Many months have passed since I had an initial conversation with my stake president about my doubts. We chatted for almost an hour during Sunday School one day while I was on a stake assignment. I opened up and told him about some of the things that have been challenging me. I was shocked by his response once he heard me out (paraphrasing):

“You’re being deceived. There must be something more — some sin or misdeed that you are trying to cover up or want to do.”

I responded:

“President, I am not a perfect man and have my own sins and challenges. I openly acknowledge them. But they are not the source of my doubts.”

He seemed a bit confused by my reply. Perhaps I had not played into the classical narrative of “undertaking to cover one’s sins”.

In any case, as one party involved in the relationship between the LDS church and myself, I openly admit my own faults and weaknesses may get in the way of my having a “good experience”, however, I similarly invite all of us to consider the possibility of abuse from a perfect partner.

Shawn 21-04-2016.

P.S Thank you Jeremy — he just resigned a few days ago.

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